Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Raffles Rising

Despite political uncertainty and a sluggish economic improvement in the Philippines, high-end real estate and the tourism industry have seen lively development with a number of investments in resorts, residences and hotels. Some are already in construction. The Shangri-La group of hotels will be opening its Boracay Resort and Spa by the end of 2008 and has broken ground at Fort Bonifacio, a former military base transformed into a commercial area in Taguig City, for a new hotel, set to open in 2012, adding to its two existing properties.

Now joining in is Raffles Hotels and Resorts, which already has several properties worldwide. The name itself connotes an illustrious history of hospitality and luxurious service, which began in Singapore.

The Raffles Hotel is, of course, named after Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the British founder of Singapore and prominent historical figure of early 19th century Southeast Asia. It was established though by four Armenian brothers, Martin, Tigran, Aviet and Arshak Sarkies, and opened in 1887, then a plain, old bungalow called the Beach House. Over the years, the hotel evolved, patronized by dignitaries, celebrities, artists and royalties. It was declared a National Monument in 1987. In 1989, the Raffles Hotels and Resorts company was formed to restore, redevelop and manage the hotel. It is owned by Fairmont Raffles Hotels International Inc., which has over 85 hotels worldwide under the Raffles, Fairmont and Swissôtel brands. After restoration, Raffles Hotel reopened in 1991. In 1996, the company began building Raffles Hotels in other parts of the world.

Through the years, Raffles has earned a reverent reputation and has been regarded as among the best in the world. It has earned a kind of legendary status. Writer W. Somerset Maugham stayed there and called it the legendary symbol for “all the fables of the Exotic East.” Writer Rudyard Kipling also stayed there, as well as a host of prominent people.
“Patronized by royalty, beloved by all,” said Jeannette Ho, vice president for marketing and sales of Raffles Hotels and Resorts.
This kind of legend Raffles is banking on. “We don’t consider ourselves as a company that just manages hotels and resorts,” Ho stated. “It’s our responsibility to create legends.”
Along with legends, they also create journeys, not just a place to stay in, “a journey of discovery,” Ho said, and “magic.”
The magic and experience can be roughly attributed to the hotel’s qualities of being steeped in culture and refinement, and being heartfelt and gracious. Ho said that they try their best to bring the culture of the destination in their hotels. Artisans from villages and families, who traditionally do certain crafts, were employed to handcraft some details of some of their hotels like Raffles Beijing in China and the newly opened Raffles Dubai in United Arab Emirates.
The entire staff of the hotel is known for their service and attention that are heartfelt and gracious, Ho further said.
These will be experienced by travelers to the Philippines and by the Filipinos themselves when Raffles opens its hotel in Makati City’s business district in 2010.
Partnering with Raffles for the project is Kingdom Hotel Investments
(KHI), a hospitality real estate investment company based in Dubai. It already has ownership interests in 34 properties in 21 countries.
“Kingdom Hotel Investments is proud to be playing an integral role in the growth of Raffles Hotels and Resorts, renowned for its legendary service, innovative culinary concepts and cultured luxury,” declared Jeff Tisdall, vice president for real estate of KHI.
“Kingdom Hotels is focused on emerging markets where we see tremendous opportunities for growth,” he further informed. He mentioned the strengths of these markets lie in tourism, business travel and overall investments.
He also announced during a press conference in Manila the three new Raffles developments, which include the one in Makati City. The other two are in Seychelles and Vietnam.
The Raffles Resort in the Seychelles, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, is set to open also in 2010 and is located the northeast tip of Praslin Island, the second largest island of the Seychelles. With 300,000 square meters land area and 500 meters of direct beachfront, Raffles Resort Praslin will have 23 private residential villas. The site close to one of the Seychelles’ UNESCO World Heritage site, the Vallée de Mai, a forest once believed to be the original site of the Garden of Eden, with about 6,000 coco de mers. Praslin also has some of the worldfs best beaches like Anse Lazio and Anse Georgette.
On the other hand, the site in Vietnam, also set to open in 2010, is in the city of Da Nang, in the central part of the country, and is close to three UNESCO World Heritage sites—the remains of ancient palaces of Thua Thien in Hue, the old village of Hoi An and the complex of religious relics of My Son. Raffles Da Nang will have about150 suites and 15 private residential villas on the famous China Beach.
In contrast, the development in Manila will be in a modern urban setting, a “strictly urban experience,” Tisdall said, in which guests will enjoy the amenities of a modern city.
Tisdall said that Manila is a place they long have seen they needed to be, but has found the right opportunity just now. There is limited supply of luxury hotels here, he said. It took time for them to choose the best site. He said the one they have chosen is the best location in Metro Manila as it provides convenient access to malls, good restaurants and other urban amenities. For this, they found a good partner with Ayala Land.
Raffles Manila is at the corner of Makati Avenue and Arnaiz Avenue (formerly Pasay Road) and will feature a 30-storey glass tower. It is actually two hotels in one—the Raffles at one side and Fairmont Hotel at the other. Guests and residents will have convenient access to the Greenbelt malls and other business, shopping, entertainment and recreation facilities in the area.
There will be limited residences at the upper storeys. Two-hundred-twenty one-, two-, and three-bedroom residences, which sell for about US$200,000 and up each, will occupy the top 20 stories of the Raffles Hotel, including two floors of penthouse apartments, which sells US$1.5 million and up each. Aside from that the hotel will have a swimming pool, a fitness center, a business centre, direct access to spa on premises, Mediterranean and Japanese restaurants, and a private owners’ lounge with concierge service. A main attraction will be The Long Bar, a contemporary interpretation of The Long Bar of Raffles Hotel Singapore, where the famous cocktail drink Singapore Sling was born.
The rooms are promised to offer spectacular views of the Makati skyline, the Manila Bay and the Laguna Bay. The hotel itself will be “a dramatic addition to the Makati skyline,” Tisdall said. Leading and award-winning US-based firm Arquitectonica, whose projects on several continents include mixed-use developments, universities, resorts, casinos, hotels, luxury condominium towers, retail centers and office buildings, will the design the tower, while US-based Bent Severin design company, which designed the refurbished Raffles Hotel Singapore as well as Marriot Hotel in Nagoya, Japan, and Hyatt Regency in Burlingame, California, among others, will do the interiors.
Sarmad Zok, chief executive officer of KHI, said, “Raffles Manila is a perfect example of our ability to create spectacular lodging and residential ownership opportunities in high growth emerging markets. Complemented by the renowned service of Raffles, our distinctive building, designed by architectural firm Arquitectonica with sleek interiors by Bent Severin, will make Raffles one of Manila’s most sought-after addresses.”
“All three of our current Raffles development projects, which include China Beach in Vietnam and Praslin Island in the Seychelles, demonstrate our commitment to developing unique world class hotels and resorts in the most sought after and rapidly growing destinations,” Tisdall said. “Our premium Makati location for KHI’s first urban Raffles development, combined with the designs by world renowned architecture and design firms, will attract international and domestic visitors.”

Other Raffles hotels and resorts in development are in Konottaa, Maldives (2009); Tianjin, China (2009); Marrakech, Morocco (2009); Jimbaran, Bali (2010); Cotai Strip, Macau (2010); Saint Lucia, West Indies (2010); Tortola, British Virgin Islands (2010); Taimana, Tahaa, French Polynesia (2010); Jakarta, Indonesia (2011); and Phang Nga, Thailand (2011).

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Boracay Regency: Reigning Over the White Sand

There was more than the usual buzz at the center and most happening portion of White Beach, whose powdery white sand has become almost legendary and made the resort island of Boracay in Western Visayas famous. Resorts and restaurants huddle together and jostle for space to get a piece of the precious white-sand area. Above them the Boracay Regency Beach Resort and Convention Center rises, a clean structure recognizable for its size, its nautilus logo and grand staircase with cascading water.

In mid-April, in the middle of the Philippine summer, the resort was extra busy but not with the usual tourists, who flock to the country’s topmost destination. Its cafes and restaurants were constantly filled with delectable dishes for its special guests—an assortment of celebrities, businessmen, socialites, diplomats and journalists—as they went through the resorts’ events. Passers-by stopped and took photos of soap stars Kristine Hermosa and Diether Ocampo, known for their unpredictable love affair, as they basked in the sun on the resort’s beachfront, the longest on the island. At the open-air café, singer Pops Fernandez, the main entertainer for the main event, appeared and was introduced to a group of diplomats. Johnny Litton, the emcee for the main event, introduced them to each other: This is the ambassador or the consul of this and that country, said Johnny to Fernandez, and to the rest, he said with a grand gesture, this is the Philippines’ Concert Queen.

But the biggest royalty that day was the resort itself, which was celebrating its 10th anniversary. On the night of April 11, 2008, the anniversary was celebrated with the most delicious food and choice entertainment. Throughout the day, they were announcing developments and inaugurating new features.
At the beachfront, a new café was opened and the old ones showed some refurbishment. At the new wing, inside the resort, a spa was unveiled. Further inland, a short walk from the resort and along the island’s main road, the resort executives broke ground for the construction of another resort.

“I didn’t expect it to be like this today,” intoned the mild-mannered owner of Boracay Regency Henry O. Chusuey. “It was just for fun and a little business.”
We were at the spanking Zhu Asian Cuisine Restaurant, which was to be inaugurated later in the day. The name of the restaurant came from the Chinese spelling of his last name. Chusuey’s grandfather migrated from China to Iloilo, one of the commercial centers of the Visayan group of islands in central Philippines, about 140 kilometers south of Boracay. He had no idea from where in China his grandfather came. Our talk took a bit of tracing the past and a bit of anticipating the future.

In Iloilo, Chusuey was engaged in the financing business and real estate development. He owned the neo-classical Regent Theater, a known landmark in Iloilo City and the oldest existing movie theatre in the province of Iloilo, having been built in 1928. Owning and managing a resort was not in his plans. Then he went to Boracay Island in 1983.

“Everybody was talking about Boracay,” Chusuey related. “At that time, there was nothing here, no electricity, no telephone, nothing. There were cottages, like squatter, small cottages. You have to bring everything with you—ice, canned goods….”

He remembered that going to Boracay entailed driving for six hours from Iloilo on rough roads, and negotiating for a boat ride in Caticlan. He liked the island though and decided to build a vacation house.

“I just wanted to have a place of my own,” he said. “Later, I thought that if I had a house and had to maintain it, I might as well build a small hotel and maybe have some income along with having a place to stay.”

Being a businessman, Chusuey admitted that having a business in Boracay gives him reason to return. “You are forced to go every two or three weeks with this business,” he said.

Chusuey opened Boracay Regency in 1998 with 43 rooms on a 3,700 square-meter beachfront property he leased. With the assistance of an architect and designer, he designed the resort itself, drawing inspiration from resorts he stayed in and saw in his travels to Bali in Indonesia and Phuket in Thailand. Although having no prior background, designing the resort did not prove difficult for Chusuey.

“It was just common sense,” he said. “You think of the best shape and that all space must be useful, like for swimming pool, garden and even the open space.”

The difficulty lay in the construction itself.

“Everything had to be imported from the mainland,” he related. “Even the sand and gravel, we had to bring them from the other side.”

There were other resorts built ahead of him, mostly having 10 to 30 rooms. At the time it opened, Boracay Regency was already the second biggest resort after Club Panoly, which had 55 rooms.

“Our resort became one of the first in the island to have international standard luxury rooms, an air-conditioned restaurant, a crystal clear swimming pool, and a function room,” Chusuey said. “In the same year Boracay Regency was the first resort in the long beach to receive a Triple A rating, the highest rating in the resort category given by the Department of Tourism.”

Regency kept growing. It added an additional 85 rooms, its second phase, in 2001. In 2004, it opened the third phase with 110 more rooms and a staircase leading to the beach. It also opened a convention center, which can accommodate 700 people, the biggest and the only one in the island.

Two years later, 90 rooms were opened in the fourth phase of the resort’s construction. The rooms now total to 285, spread over 18,000 square meters of property, making Boracay Regency the biggest resort in the island so far. The new rooms are in the posh Garden Wing of the resort with a new reception and lobby and encircling two swimming pools, gleaming with its turquoise tiles.

“Ten years and 285 world-class rooms later, Boracay Regency is a resort with no lean season,” declared Chusuey during the resort’s anniversary celebration.

During the occasion, he awarded loyal employees while guests dressed in summer chic enjoyed a sumptuous buffet of grilled seafood and roasts, salads and cheeses, and hot dishes and desserts on the beachfront. He also revealed his secret for success.

“One of the reasons why this resort was built was to provide luxury rooms and service to tourists at a fair rate,” Chusuey said. “Through the years we realized that our objective of providing our guests with quality rooms and service as well as value for money has paid off. This would then manifest in the number of arrivals each year even on the so-called off-peak seasons.”
He further said, “Our business’s success is mostly credited to our mission of satisfying our guests’ expectations. We give them an experience to remember in this beautiful island without charging them too much….Our resort is probably number one in room occupancy because for us value for money for our guests is important. We keep on improving our services and very often we renovate our rooms for our guests comfort and satisfaction. I guess it’s safe to say that we have satisfied all our guests because most of them keep on coming back.”

And he is giving more reasons for guests to come back. The sleek Zhu restaurant adds to the dining options of Boracay Regency with its Asian menu. Already there are the Sea Breeze Café, with its international cuisine and view of the sea; Café Christina, a fine-dining restaurant with a selection of wine, prime cuts of beef, seafood and a menu of Italian and Filipino cuisines; and Regency Food Plaza, an open-air dining plaza with a choice of Chinese, Japanese or Korean cuisines. There is also the Mexican-inspired MO2 Wave Bar, deemed as the first and only underground bar in the island, which features live music, a dance floor and five KTV rooms.
Along with Zhu, the Kai Regency Spa, at the third level of the Garden Wing, was inaugurated. Conceptualized by spa consultant Cathy Velez, the spa has different themes for the each room but has an overall Asian vibe, using materials like stone, wood and bamboo. Aside form the regular menu of treatments and massages, Kai offers its own pampering packages like the Romantic Paradise, which lasts for five hours, costs Php13,500 and treats couples to a candlelight rose petal milk bath, an aromatherapy stone massage, a Choco Lovers souffle gommage, a purifying facial and a romantic dinner at Café Christina.

But the biggest development is the Regency Lagoon, boasted to have 120 luxurious rooms with terraces and direct access to the pool, which will be the biggest in the island. Chusuey earmarked P250 million for the construction of the Regency Lagoon on a 7,800-square-meter lot along Boracay’s main road, which began in May and will finish on November 2008. One-thousand-two-hundred square meters are reserved for the pool, which will feature white sand and artificial waves, perhaps to compensate for its distance from the beach. But the new resort promises to be secluded and intimate, “away from the hustle and bustle of the crowds,” and “slightly cheaper than Boracay Regency because it is not beachfront,” Chusuey said.

Chusuey has another property at the other side of the island, in the barangay of Manoc-Manoc, with half kilometer of beach, but there is no plans yet of building a resort there. What is more concrete are his plans for building resorts in other parts of the country, particularly in Bohol in Central Visayas and Palawan.

By the end of 2008, after Regency Lagoon, Chusuey will start constructing Bohol Regency on a five hectare property near the tourist strip of Alona Beach on the island of Panglao in Bohol. He expects the completion of a 300-room resort in two years. Only 25 percent of the property will be reserved for the structure while the rest is open space.

After Bohol, he will tackle Palawan. He owns an island in Coron in the northern part of Palawan, where he plans a high-end and private resort, much like Amanpulo in Cuyo.

Nowadays, Chusuey, who is also the president of the Filipino-Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Panay, is as busy as ever. Most of his time now is spent in managing the resort.
Things changed fast for Boracay Island and Chusuey. Boracay still remains much-talked about but now in national and international scopes. The island sees more than half a million tourists arriving in a year, and the number increases every year. Resorts have cropped up almost everywhere, and amenities and conveniences are readily available. Before, Chusuey had to endure six hours of rough road. With developments, it now only takes only four hours from Iloilo, and transportation facilities are adequate. But Chusuey now takes his own plane, which takes about 35 minutes from Iloilo.

Chusuey said that Boracay has “probably the best beach in the world,” but ironically, “I don’t enjoy now the beach,” he said. “I’m here for business. I didn’t expect that. I was supposed to come here to enjoy.” Now, he has to go to Bali or Phuket to have a vacation. But he has no regrets. He is busy thinking about how Boracay can compete with Bali and Phuket.

Getting There
Boracay Island is about 315 kilometers (200 miles) south of Manila and two kilometers off the northwest tip of the island of Panay in the Western Visayas . Airplanes fly frequently from Manila to Kalibo, the capital of Aklan, and Caticlan, a barangay of Malay. Flight time is about 45 minutes. From Kalibo, there will be a 90-minute road trip to Caticlan. In Caticlan, there is 15-minute ride on the resort’s private boat, which will take guests to the rear of the island, where they will be picked up in a private car to Boracay Regency.

Contact Information
Boracay Regency Beach Resort and Convention Center is at Station 2, Balabag, Boracay, Malay, Aklan, with telephone number (63) (36) 288-6111-117, fax number (63) (36) 288-6777 and emails
main@boracayregency.com, regency@info.com.ph and regency8267@yahoo.com. Its Manila sales office is at U5B, 5th Floor, W. Deepz Building, 1033 M.H. del Pilar Street, Ermita, Manila, with telephone number (63) (2) 523-1234, fax numbers (63) (2) 523-9790 , (63) (2) 521-7529 and email rsvn@boracayregency.com. Log on to www.boracayregency.com.